Despite its well-earned prestige as our national championship, the U.S. Open is not the most exciting major in golf. It delivers far less than the Masters and can’t compete with the run that the British Open is on over the last decade. There have been plenty of legendary winners and unforgettable Sundays with dramatic finishes. It’s a great championship but it also misses more than those other two. Sometimes we get random champions. Sometimes we get blowouts. Sometimes the golf is just a boring slog full of pars that don’t end up being fun to watch.
This week should not be one of those. After a few months of being told 2018 was the “most anticipated Masters ever,” we’re set up again at the U.S. Open. It’s not overhype, but just the way things have fallen in 2018. There are a few common elements between that pre-Masters excitement and this U.S. Open, and a few unique reasons why you should be in a manic Monster-fueled state of anticipation for this second major. Here are five.
Tiger Woods can contend in his first U.S. Open start in three years
We have hit the “toughest test in golf” mile-marker in what is Tiger Woods’ attempt at his first full healthy season since 2013. It’s been three years since Tiger played the U.S. Open, which is boilerplate now for every event he’s started this season since Torrey Pines. That last start at Chambers Bay was arguably his most embarrassing major.
He missed the 2015 cut by miles and the lasting images are Tiger’s club flying through the air after a hopeless hack from some knee-high fescue, and a cold top ground ball he hit in the 18th fairway. It was the kind of shot a hack chop hits at the muni on the weekend when he thinks he can pull off some hero shot with a fairway wood off the deck. Tiger’s top dribbled into the ”Chambers basement,” a deep bunker in the middle of the fairway and resulted in this memorable bit of symbolism.
The U.S. Open seems like the last place Tiger would break through for his first win in five years. It asks every kind of question of every part of your game and you don’t just show up with only a few months of real competition after multiple years out of the game and win it.
But Tiger is in a better place than, I think, anyone could have imagined just six months into the year. That place may not mean he’ll win this week, or this year, or maybe ever again. He’s got a better chance than we all expected, however, and it’s within a realm of possibility that did not exist three years ago at Chambers Bay or in the intervening two years of trouble getting out of bed.
Tiger is back to striking the ball at not just a competitive level, but an elite PGA Tour-winning level. He had one round in his last start that resulted in the second-best strokes gained tee-to-green mark of his entire career. His short game has shown no signs of that horrendous chipping yips spell that he now says was a result of the nerve pain in his back. In fact, his chipping and wedges are now a strength of his game. The point is: if he’s playing like this tee-to-green, he has a chance to compete and contend at this venue, which seemed unlikely a few months ago.
The putter is the club, based on recent form, that could send him home early or have him playing meaningless rounds on the weekend. His putting stats in his last start were some of the worst of his career. But the putter is one club, one area of the game that can come back the fastest. You can putt like trash one day, and find a heater the next. A bad putter usually stays a bad putter over time, but it’s easier to shake off and catch fire for a round or two. Tiger is also not a historically bad putter. He’s one of the best of all time, just putting poorly in two of his last three starts. It can come around quickly, as it did at The Players. The ballstriking seems to be reliably there for Tiger, so if the putting switch does flip, we’re in for a show all weekend.
Even if his putting stinks again, the way he’s hitting the ball will be fantastic to watch at a shotmaking test like this. It never seemed like we could anticipate that again, and certainly not at a U.S. Open at this specific venue. We should actually expect it this week.
The best major venue in the United States
Shinnecock Hills is unanimously revered as one of the very best golf courses in the world, and you’ll see plenty of arguments this week that it is the top major championship venue this country has to offer (including Augusta National). There are several brilliant pieces outlining its architectural perfection, but I will pull one from course design expert Andy Johnson that I found particularly illuminating (you should read his entire course breakdown here).
Playing Shinnecock is like stepping into the ring against Floyd Mayweather. The course doesn’t rely on singular holes to deliver knockout punches but rather lies in wait for tactical mistakes ready to punish them.
The course will look pretty on TV, present of bunch of different challenging shots and trajectories that will be fun to watch, and when a player starts to feel himself too much, it will deliver the US Open ejection that we love to rubberneck. There’s no one specific hole that would stick out for an untrained TV viewer, like an island green or a some scenic seaside shot vista. It’s monotonous only in its perfection from 1 through 18, as each hole is worth watching for its own challenge and display of the best kind of architecture from the game’s past.
After some non-traditional venues in recent years, we’re back to an old friend and one that many consider to be the ideal U.S. Open spot. Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee even argued Shinny could host every year and it would make perfect sense.
This is as good as it gets and the only critique I’d have of the venue is that it’s an uber-exclusive club dropped in the Hamptons, a summer playground for the extremely wealthy. While it did immediately allow women members from its foundations in the 1890s, it is an appropriate if unfortunate reminder of how golf is structured in this country. Whereas the British Open’s ideal venue, St. Andrews, encompasses the open public park nature of so many of the best courses across the pond, the exclusivity of Shinnecock encompasses how the best courses in this country are walled off and inaccessible. That matters less for watching the best in the world take it on this week, so take it in because we don’t get this caliber of venue every year.
The USGA as heel
One of my favorite annual traditions is course setup drama at the U.S. Open. The grumbling, screaming, whining, yelling — it’s all quite fun if you’re an outside observer. The last time the U.S. Open came to Shinnecock Hills, the course setup delivered one of the great farces in major championship history. The embarrassment of watering Shinny’s 7th green in between groups so it was playable is one of the lowest points in USGA history and major championship history.